In two very different parts of the world, seemingly impenetrable authoritarian regimes suddenly appear under siege by popular democratic uprisings. But as protesters take to the streets in Belarus and Thailand — and garner widespread international support — it still remains unclear if they'll be able to turn their mass demonstrations into tangible change.
Flawed democracy, military rule: Thailand, which for years has vacillated between periods of a flourishing if flawed democracy and straight-out military rule, has been run by generals who took over in a 2014 coup and suspended the constitution. The junta has faced sporadic protests, but General-turned-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's victory for another four-year tem in a sketchy 2019 general election did not cause a major stir, until the recent unrest.
One-man show: In contrast, Belarus has seen next to no bona fide democracy since it became independent following the end of the Soviet Union. President Alexander Lukashenko (who has served for 26 years) recently won reelection in what is widely considered to be a corrupt race that included his opponent fleeing and seeking asylum in Lithuania. Many Belarusians had developed a sense of complacency with the man often described as Europe's last dictator — particularly in defending the small former Soviet country against its neighbor Russia.
What changed in Minsk: But the spark of revolution is drawing supporters from even his traditional base. Belarus's largest protest ever took place last weekend in the capital Minsk.
• Tens of thousands chanted "Resign" and condemned the police brutality that has led to at least two deaths and around 6,700 arrests. Accounts of torture and forced disappearances have only spurred more to join the protests.
• Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya encouraged collective action in a video, saying "We need to stop the violence on the streets of Belarusian cities. I call on the government to stop this and come to the negotiating table."
What changed in Bangkok: Meanwhile last Sunday in the Thai capital, an estimated 10,000 student protesters attended a rally at the Democracy Monument asking for the reform of the country's monarchy.
• The protest, organized by the Free People group — formerly called Free Youth — is the largest anti-government rally since the 2014 coup. Thatthep Ruangprapaikitseree, the group's leader, announced in a statement they will stick to three demands: They want the dissolution of the House of Representatives, a new constitution "based on the will of the people" and "the end of intimidation of critics of the government."
• This movement comes after a month of almost daily protests which took place all around the country; a Harry Potter-themed rally criticizing the monarchy drew global media attention. Dressed as Hogwarts students, the young protesters denounced "lèse-majesté" laws, which ban criticism of the royal family and can lead to 15 years in prison.
Recent protest in Minsk against President Lukashenko. — Photo: Ulf Mauder/DPA/ZUMA
• Like in Belarus, Thai authorities are using the threat of incarceration to silence both movement leaders and those protesting on the front lines.
• Eleven activists have already been arrested over the recent protests, but police have said there are arrest warrants for a further 12 people with more under investigation. This past Saturday, the student activist Parit Chiwarak, 22, was arrested on charges of sedition.
• Thai youth are criticizing the establishment itself that is promoting obedience to authorities and tradition. They are also concerned with a worsening financial situation, with the poverty rate jumping from 7.2% to 9.8% between 2015 and 2018.
The pandemic factor:COVID-19 is raising the stakes for both the regimes and protesters in both countries.
• The tourism sector, vital for Thailand's economy, has been severely impacted. With no foreign tourists allowed into the country for months, the crisis caused millions of job losses in hotels and restaurants. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Thailand recorded its largest economic contraction since 1999 in the quarter ending in June.
• The economy was also an important factor in Belarus: While it experienced economic growth in the first decade of the 2000s, growth especially in industrial sectors has stagnated as public debt to GDP ratios have increased. The economy is now expected to contract 2% this year because of the health crisis and decreased demand for its commodities.
Democratic takeaway: The Belarus protesters have garnered more attention and global support than their counterparts in Thailand. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the president of the European Council have said they want Lukashenko to be held accountable. But the country risks turning into a proxy battlefield in a larger geopolitical landscape, as offers of military assistance from Russia are raising fears of President Vladimir Putin gaining control in the country of nine million people.
The relative diplomatic silence around Thailand since the military takeover in 2014 is a sign that the fate of the country is largely in the hands of its own people and leaders. For those risking their lives for the cause of democracy — in Bangkok, Minsk or myriad places in between — global interest in your country can cut both ways.